[TODAY]The euro's basis is centuries oldOne of the most tiresome things about an overseas trip to several countries is money exchange problems. Change countries, change money, and you end up with a pocketful of change in various currencies when you come back home.
The good news is that starting next year, money exchange will no longer be a problem if you're traveling in the euro zone. The United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark aside, the other 12 European Union nations embark on an unprecedented single currency system, the euro system. With the new year, 300 million Europeans will discard their old money for the euro. Even the symbol of the miracle on the Rhine, the German mark, will disappear into history, albeit with much reluctance on the Germans' part.
Members of the euro zone, as the group of countries that have adopted the euro currency is called, began the major task of converting to the new currency on Sept. 1 when they started transporting 14 billion bills and 50 billion coins to banks in the member countries. European businesses have long shifted their production centers to eastern European countries in preparation for the full-blown circulation of the euro, and companies are vying with one another for market share through mergers and acquisitions.
The concept of present-day Europe began to emerge in about 800 A.D., when Charlemagne, King of the Franks, established his Carolingian dynasty in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), where present-day France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet. That empire was revived as the Holy Roman Empire starting with the reign of a German, Otto the Great, in the late 10th century. The Holy Roman Empire united, at least symbolically, the European continent.
The Carolingian dynasty and the Holy Roman Empire united the European continent under a strong political leadership, and now the euro will be a historical experiment to see if the continent can be reunited: first culturally and psychologically, then economically, and finally, politically.
The holdout EU countries may also join the euro zone. A Gallup poll shows that while only a few British actually welcome the euro currency, the majority has accepted it as inevitable. Among Swedes, 22 percent have changed their minds about the euro from negative to positive during the last six months, and a small majority now approves. Danes have also made an about-face; about 53 percent said in a national survey last year they opposed the euro, but now 51 percent say they approve.
Ten eastern European nations may be joining the EU by 2004. The exchange rates of those countries are geared to the euro. The French economic zone in Africa is also closely related to the euro zone. The Americans are confident that the euro will not disturb the current international monetary order led by the dollar. Scholars like Zbigniew Brzezinski have claimed that the influence of the euro will only be psychological.
But the euro zone will be an economic bloc with 16 percent of the world's GDP and 20 percent of international trade. Thirty-six percent of international loans were issued in euros in the first half of the year, according to a Samsung Economic Research Institute report, suggesting that the dollar might find its undisputed position as the leading bond currency threatened.
It is risky to adopt a single currency when there is no federal government to oversee its management. Moreover, in times like these, when the importance of the nation and the government are being re-emphasized by the war against terrorism, giving up a national currency, a symbol of sovereignty, might not be advisable.
Esperanto, an international language created with the aim of ending war by increasing amity and understanding between nations and peoples, failed because the artificial language lacked the capacity to accommodate diversities in culture, heritage and values. If a currency is not just a means of transactions but is linked with national culture and heritage, then the euro might indeed end as a mere psychological commotion, as some Americans predict.
But based on the shared foundation of Christianity and influenced by the common reign of the Carolingian dynasty, the Holy Roman Empire and, in part, the Hapsburg family, the various sectors of today's European civilization have lived with one another through ceaseless feuds, wars and reconciliations. Through a history of sharing and parting of interests, they have learned the wisdom of developing homogeneity amid diversity. International response to the euro has generally been positive, but its historical significance can be fully understood only when it is seen as a phenomenon of civilization.
The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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